Instability in Eastern Europe

By Alexander Clark, ’19

Since 2014, Ukraine has served as a flashpoint for clashing Europe-Russia interests. What began as protests against the Pro-Yanukovych government escalated into Civil War between a new pro-Western government and Pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists. Since 2014, the former Soviet republic has seen border changes as Russia annexed the strategic Crimean Peninsula and intense fighting in the eastern part of the country. Pro-Russian separatists have also attempted to form break away states to the recognition of Russia and to the chagrin of the west. As of the end of last year, the conflict has led to the deaths of over 10,000 people. 1.6 million have been displaced either internally or externally as refugees.

Ukraine President Petro Poroschenko Discusses Russian Aggression in the Ukraine


As of this March, a barely tenable cease fire has attempted to cool lingering tensions between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian rebels. According to peace monitors from The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, risk of conflict runs high as soldiers from both sides have their lines so close to one another that opposing soldiers are within shouting distance of one another. In fact, this ceasefire which began in 2015, has not proven to be successful since its passage. In the week after President Trump’s inauguration, 40 armed combatants and civilians were killed as rebels and pro-government exchanged shell-fire in Avdiyivka. Both Kiev and the Rebels labeled the opposing sides as the initial aggressors. Beyond outright fighting, tensions have boiled in eastern Ukraine as Kiev has decided to enact an economic blockade on rail traffic to the Pro-Russian eastern separatist strongholds. Industrial output in products like pig Iron and steel have declined as a result. The blockade has halted any serious possibility of economic recovery for Ukraine.

Long-term prospects for peace in Ukraine took a further plunge as a Putin critic and Russian legislator, Denis Voronenkov, was assassinated in Kiev. Ukraine accused Moscow of the murder, to the Kremlin’s denial. Ukraine specifically alleged that the murderer, Pavel Parshov, received training from Russian security forces.

The horrendous relations between Moscow and Kiev can be examined in a broader context by examining the tensions in another former Soviet Republic-Belarus. Known as “Europe’s last dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko has maintained a firm grip of power on the Russian border state since 1994. This status has been called into question as of March when the president faced escalating protests over taxing the unemployed through “social parasite” laws. Despite his initial concessions to protestors, who gathered in the thousands in the capital of Minsk, Lukashenko has now exerted harsher measures on his detractors. In late February and Early March, the Belarussian government arrested over 240 dissidents.

Many commentators are pointing to similarities between Belarus and Ukraine, going as far to call the former as “the next Ukraine.” This analogy reveals an unexpected transition in foreign policy outlook from Lukashenko. The strongman was once seen as a vital pro-Russian buffer against NATO expansion, an issue of long-standing angst in the Kremlin. Recently, Lukashenko has distanced himself from Putin. He made statements in support of the Ukrainian government, he Russian plans to build an airbase in his country. Putin responded by placing high-alert FSB agents on his border with Belarus, which was once more or less open. Belarussian policy analyst Arseniy Sivitskiy of the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies claims that a mercurial, uncertain American foreign policy toward Russia gives Putin an opportunity to act decisively in this region. He sees Russian incursions in destabilizing the internal political scene in Belarus as likely. Herein lies the comparison of Belarus to Ukraine. With heightening protests against Lukashenko, Putin has an opportunity to react to internal instability just as he did in Ukraine.                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Furthermore, Ukraine and Belarus relate in Vladimir Putin’s world view. He-along with Russian in general-use the term “near abroad” to describe the former Soviet states on Russia’s periphery. In this regard, Russia’s national interests involve containing an expansive NATO in the Soviet sphere and protecting significant Russian minorities in those regions as well. According to one perspective from the New School for Social Research, this dogma seeks to counterbalance what many see as the inherent dangers and instability associated with only one nation-the United States-acting as the world’s sole super power. In this respect, Putin sees himself as acting in the tradition of statesmen of old, whereupon different powers maintained their own spheres of influence. Putin sees nations like Belarus and Ukraine within his own sphere.

Of course, the question of who deserves most blame for the current Ukraine crisis is one of unending debate. Unfortunately, no viable long-term prospects for peace in that shattered eastern European nation are tenable in the short and medium term. Blockades, diplomatic spats and fundamental disruptions of territorial integrity have entrenched both Moscow and Kiev in their hatred of one another. These tensions have poured over into Ukraine’s Northern neighbor as once again the narrative of a nation torn between east and west begins to take hold. While the situation in Belarus is nowhere near as volatile as that in Ukraine, the potential for further instability cannot be ignored. The carnage underway in Ukraine stemmed from basic internal political divisions and foreign policy pivots that are currently evident in Belarus. Moreover, the importance of both nations in the eyes of a Russia concerned with its “near abroad” and NATO concerned with expansion cannot be ignored. US policy toward this Faultline and Russia generally remains uncertain just two months into the Trump administration. However, events over the past few months show that escalating conflict in Eastern Europe marks a trend toward instability.








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